The Danish Girl - Gender As a Performance

The Danish Girl is a study of gender and femininity, beautifully filmed on opulent, painterly backdrops. Moreover, one of the heroines is Gerda Wegener, a name I came across during my research on women's magazines from early 20th-century.

Gerda Gottlieb, Lili Elbe, 1920.

Gerda Gottlieb, Lili Elbe, 1920.

The film tells the tragic story of Einar Wegener, a transgender artist, who underwent one of the first gender reassignment surgeries in 1930, to become Lili Elbe. He was married to Gerda Wegener, a distinguished Danish painter and fashion illustrator. Initially, Gerda aided her husband and contributed to the formation of the alter persona Lili. She dressed him in women's clothes and he served as a model in her paintings. 

The work of Gerda Wegener has a prominent place among the art deco artists of the era. She explored gender as a performance (The Guardian 2015) and depicted long-legged, confident and active women. These artworks fascinated the Parisian art society. However, people were scandalised to learn that the model behind some of the portraits is Gerda's husband.

Neither medicine nor society was equipped to meet Einar's transformation. He suffered depression, his marriage to Gerda was dissolved, and he died as a result of his surgeries. It is interesting that Lili Elbe was ever only free to express her femininity in Gerda's paintings. In this respect art is often more forward than society.

Previously, I discussed Berger and how the "male gaze" is challenged by contemporary artists. It appears that Gerda Wegener, with her erotic paintings, redefined the "female gaze". Historian Andrea Rygg Karberg states that Gerda's work has revolutionised how women are portrayed in art:

Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects.
— Andrea Rygg Karberg, 2015.
Gerda Wegener,  A Summer Day , 1927.

Gerda Wegener, A Summer Day, 1927.

Fragmented Femininity

In contemporary Illustration textbooks, the depiction of fragmented gender and femininity is often discussed as a trend (Wigan, 2006, p. 36). On the other hand, according to researchers like Gauntlett perception of self-identity is unified (Gauntlett 2008, p. 266). He challenges the postmodernist views of identities being fragmented, and he shows that in visual representation, most people portray their identity as “one thing” (Gauntlett 2008, p. 269). I set to find some examples of fragmented feminine depiction.

First, I examined the work of Anna Higgie. She creates illustrations of womanly forms interrupted by geometric shapes and graphic patterns. Higgie combines traditional medium like ink, pencil, watercolour, with digital techniques. I was drawn by the cinematic mood, the monochromatic palette and the juxtaposition of fine art drawings with abstract geometric elements. It creates a feeling of feminine vulnerability, hidden behind the digital patterns. These pictures can be viewed as portraits of the modern woman and her fragmented life experiences, of which feminist authors like June Hannam write.

Anna Higgie,  Dolor EP , 2012.

Anna Higgie, Dolor EP, 2012.

Anna Higgie,  Designs for murals in rooms 103 & 104 of ACE London , 2013.

Anna Higgie, Designs for murals in rooms 103 & 104 of ACE London, 2013.

Next, I explored the work of Hungarian designer Anna Kövecses. I was fascinated with the playful way she combines photos with illustrations. This technique enhances the narrative by adding a layer of additional meaning in the composition. Her work has a deceptively naive style, featuring simple figures and bright colors. However, the layouts are carefully arranged in a knowledgeable and thoughtful manner. In my personal work, I usually draw a clear distinction between my design works and my illustrations. Merging the two disciplines can lead to interesting results, as these images by Kovecses show. 

Unlike the examples above, my works represent things in a realistic manner. I would like to experiment more with interrupting the flow by use of geometry or photo collage.

Anna Kovecses,  Aritzia , 2013.

Anna Kovecses, Aritzia, 2013.


Gauntlett, D. 2008, Media, gender and identity: an introduction, New;1;2; edn, Routledge, London.

Wigan, M. 2006, Thinking visually, AVA, Lausanne.

Eckhard Völcker - Photomicrography

I have been fascinated with the microscopic world since I received my first toy microscope as a child. During my biology studies in the university, I had the opportunity to work with high power microscopes and study microorganisms and tissues at a cellular level. My imagination was excited by the hidden universe that exists at 4x+ magnification. Fluorescent dyes are used to color tissues, resulting in defined shapes and patterns that can be seen under the compound microscope.

The Eckhard Völcker light microscope photography of plants is where art meets science. The captivating images feature brilliant colors and intricate mosaics of cells. They appear like fine wool knitted fabrics or organic mandalas.

I felt inspired to seek more ways to unite my former scientific education with my current creative work. I would like to create some nature inspired patterns of micro and macro structures.

Eckhard Völcker,  0016 , 2012.

Eckhard Völcker, 0016, 2012.

Eckhard Völcker,  Rose 10x , 2010.

Eckhard Völcker, Rose 10x, 2010.

Eckhard Völcker,  002 Bamboo , 2012.

Eckhard Völcker, 002 Bamboo, 2012.

Eckhard Völcker,  Chesnut , 2012.

Eckhard Völcker, Chesnut, 2012.

Eckhard Völcker,  Fir 5x , 2010.

Eckhard Völcker, Fir 5x, 2010.

Laura Callaghan Quotes

Laura Callaghan is a London-based illustrator. Her images caught my eye with the expressive use of patterns and color. She incorporates fashion and surface design influences in her work. Her characters are strong, sophisticated women, who love literature. I was intrigued by her process and researched more information about it. Below are excerpts from various interviews.

Laura Callaghan,  The Pink Room .

Laura Callaghan, The Pink Room.

Laura Callaghan,  for NYLON-magazine .

Laura Callaghan, for NYLON-magazine.

First, Laura approaches a brief or editorial comission by researching and collating reference images. She uses Pinterest to create her mood boards.

I’m not someone who draws out lots of thumbnails, I’m too impatient so usually dive straight in to sketching and figure out layout and composition by trial and error.
— Laura Callaghan, MagCulture, 2015.

I found this quote particularly relevant to my own practice where I rarely sketch or plan complete compositions. Usually, I draw various elements on paper separately and then I assemble them in Adobe Illustrator using a trial and error method and intuitive placement. 

Laura creates an authentic feel to her images by imagining a backstory.

My illustrations are very characters-based, so I always begin with an idea of who that person might be, their back story or mood - it keeps things interesting for me and I think it adds to the final atmosphere of a piece. I try to cram as many details as possible into an illustration: photographs, handwritten notes, hidden details and clues about the characters that occupy them. It makes the viewer look closely at the image and perhaps come up with a back story of their own.
— Laura Callaghan,, 2013.

On the question, why she draws only women, she replies:

Women inspire me and I relate to women, so for me they make the most interesting subjects. When it comes to narrative work, the stories I want to tell are from a female perspective. I think ample space is given to male stories and characters within comics and illustration and I don’t really feel a need to contribute to that.
— Laura Callagan,, 2015

 Callaghan keeps an active online presence and she often is contacted by art directors, who first noted her work online. 

Inspiration Carol Rossetti

In my search of contemporary illustrations that challenge the established views of femininity, I came across the work of Carol Rossetti.  Rossetti offers an empathic view on women's body and identity issues. She draws inspiration from a wide variety of stories and topics like  LGBTQ identity, body image, ageism, racism, sexism and ableism (Identities Mic 2014). The Women Project series struck a global attention with thousands of followers. A group of Israeli feminists translated the illustrations in Hebrew. 

Carol Rossetti, The Women project, 2014.

Carol Rossetti, The Women project, 2014.

Rossetti cleverly combines typography with simple pencil drawings to deliver these powerful messages. It is a goal of mine to incorporate more handwriting into my own illustrations, to enhance their content. I was impressed by the range of work Rosetti created, from light, humorous topics to dark themes like rape. Invariably she employs identical visual style in these works. I have always been interested in how the style of an image affects the meaning that is conveyed. To find illustrations that can elicit laugh or sorrow while using the same visual style is a revelation to me.

Inspiration Polly Nor

The concept of the "male gaze" and "female gaze" was first discussed by British art critic John Berger in his essays Ways of Seeing (Berger 1972). Later feminist writer Laura Mulvey (Mulvey, 1975) reinforces this concept claiming that in cinema the camera gaze is “male” due to the male perspective of filmmakers. I wanted to find how contemporary artists challenge the male gaze and I came across the daring and humorous illustrations of Polly Nor.

London-based artist Polly Nor challenges the image of the objectified woman, created by pornography and intended for male pleasure. In her interview for Dazed magazine (Dazed 2015), she states:

“I am questioning the ubiquitous male vision (of women),” she tells us, offering instead an “alternative view on sexuality, relationships and emotions from a modern-day female perspective.” - Polly Nor, Dazed 2015
Polly Nor,  Babe You Are Going To Be Fine , 2015.

Polly Nor, Babe You Are Going To Be Fine, 2015.

Polly Nor,  Trust Nobody , 2015.

Polly Nor, Trust Nobody, 2015.

Nor is inspired by “funny texts, angry tweets, memes and selfies” (Dazed 2015). Most of her work is self-directed. Her process begins on paper, where she implements her visions into hand drawings and then she colours digitally in nude and pastel hues.

Sexuality is a common subject matter in her artwork, depicted in satirical and light tone. The devil creature in her images represents the dark side of her characters, Nor explains.

Nor's work differs from mine, both in the way she represents the feminine role and her bold, comic-like style of drawing. While I use botanical, floral elements to create idealised feminine compositions, Nor is not afraid to show the flaws of her characters in domestic scenes. Sometimes the characters escape into a wild, tropical world which signifies the inner savage feminine desire.

Polly Nor,  It Never Happened , 2015.

Polly Nor, It Never Happened, 2015.


Berger, J. 1972, Ways of seeing, Penguin, London.

Mulvey, L. 1975, Visual pleasure and narrative cinema, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 6-18.

Inspired by Fashion - Hand Marks

I am often inspired by fashion and surface design. When I start a project, I usually add to my mood board several catwalk and textile images. Fashion designers find ways to innovate classic themes each year. I think we can learn how to innovate in design and illustration if we observe closely fashion trends.

This year, one trend which caught my eye, reported by Pattern Bank, is "Hand Marks". It features "linear drawings, sketched texture, graphic lines, paint drips, abstract brush marks, felt tip marks and varied pen and pencil" (Pattern Bank 2015, p.31).

Laura Slater,  Textiles , 2013.

Laura Slater, Textiles, 2013.

Prada,  Spring 2016  Ready-to-Wear Collection Photos.

Prada, Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear Collection Photos.

Michael van der Ham,  Spring 2013 RTW .

Michael van der Ham, Spring 2013 RTW.

Georgiana Paraschiv,  Graphic 81 , 2015.

Georgiana Paraschiv, Graphic 81, 2015.

Christopher Kane,  SS16, 

Christopher Kane, SS16, 

Chung-Im Kim,  free grid .

Chung-Im Kim, free grid.

I was inspired by the textile designs of Laura Slater. Her influences are architecture and natural environment. Her ink markings on fabric are abstract and appear random; there is a great sense of rhythm and texture movement. Slater discusses her process "develops through photocopying, re-scaling, over drawing, and layering" (Laura Slater, 2014.

The Hand Mark trend is also visible in the works of Georgiana Paraschiv. Her minimalist, brush mark patterns vary in scale through the layout. I found this technique interesting since I usually adhere to a particular scale for all elements in a composition.

From the catwalk, design labels like Prada, Kane and Michael van der Ham, showcase garments with ink lines, splatters and mixture of brush marks in various scale. 

Via the Pattern Bank SS17 report, I also discovered the work of the textile artist Chung-Im Kim. She creates complex silk screen patterns on industrial felt pieces. By hand stitching the felt pieces together, the patterns are assembled and grow into organic complex wall structures.

Body Art and Modification

Recently I visited the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford which contains a large selection of anthropological and archaeological artefacts. These objects are encased in Victorian glass boxes and are grouped by function.

The Body Art section made a strong impression on me (see images below). My area of focus is femininity in art and illustration. It is fascinating that the female body itself can serve as a canvas for art. Tattoos and body modifications can be an expression of personality, social status and cultural identity.  

Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, Body Art. Photos by Sabina Radeva, 2015.

Some body modifications, like the Haida tribe lip-plugs (see image above) may seem extreme. However, there are parallels with our western society where extreme plastic surgery, tattoos, corset binding and piercing may seem equally bizarre. In an article by Reba Maybury, in Sang Bleu Magazine, the author discusses how current trends and social media influence people's perception of their body. There is an increasing number of body modifications where people imitate the look of famous celebrities to attract attention on platforms like Instagram. The more unnatural and extreme the body transformation, the more viral their online presence becomes.

Next, I was interested to find how contemporary artists have interpreted the theme body art. I mainly found works incorporating tattoos. There are not many illustrations on the topic of body modification.

Terry Hays combines street art with tribal tattoo motifs. He paints with acrylics on wood and creates beautiful patterns. I was inspired by the bold colors and intricate details. I would like to incorporate more patterns in my own work.

Terry Hays, Pembina Highway, 2012.

YASCO, #39, 2009.

YSCO, #7.

YASCO, Odalisque, 2011.

YASCO, Odalisque, 2011.

Stacia Burrington, Little Legs, 2012.

Stacia Burrington, Little Legs, 2012.

Artist Yasmina Alaoui combines Eastern, Arabic influences, Tattoo styles and Henna patterns to create mesmerising body art. Alaoui layers her motifs on black and white nude photographs. I liked the contemporary feel of the Henna patterns.

I examined the work of Stasia Burrington, who combines cut out fabric flowers with pencil drawings to create beautiful body art studies. I liked the Kraft blooms with vivid colors applied on the delicate, simple drawings.

I was inspired by the theme Body Art, and the works I found by contemporary artists. The images which I selected in this brief research share similarities to my work. I am attracted to intricate patterns and surreal compositions. I would like to respond to this theme with an illustration which also incorporates elements of body modifications.